Chris Elam, Mosaic Artist
Chris Elam, a Bloomington artist, was introduced to me by Kirby Melick when I was in town photographing on Tuesday. Watching Chris at work, and seeing the nature of his chosen medium, I was not surprised to learn that he had attended Seminary. There’s something meditative and spiritual about the process of mosaic.
It was also interesting to me how he spoke reverently of the ancient practice of “classical mosaic”, using tools largely unchanged in thousands of years. I enjoyed his great appreciation for the history of it. The photos below depict a classical mosaic and tools, as opposed to “tile mosaic” for which he uses modern tools.
You can see more of Chris’s work online on the Sycamore Tile Works website.
The following set of six questions will be answered by each of the subjects.
1) Some people call it a “true calling” or their “life’s work.” In the book The Alchemist, author Paulo Coelho calls it your Personal Legend. What do you consider to be your true calling, or Personal Legend?
I personally think we have lots of “callings” in life and are likely always being “called” to something if we are in tune with ourselves and the present moment. These “callings” are things that have drawn us into their orbit and things for which we’ve had the courage to enter, things that have gravity and significance for us personally. For me, doing mosaic work has become one of those “callings.” It’s something I used to call my ghost, that thing that just kept on haunting me, until I gave it notice.
After having given myself to it, now it’s something that I do that gives me challenge while allowing me enough freedom to play and perhaps allows me to fulfill some inner need or impulse that I may not fully understand. Mosaics are not my “True Calling”, though. I could have been just as likely to have been called to carpentry or painting or writing. It just so happened that my path brought me to mosaics and it stuck.
There is another sense in which we have to recognize that however wonderful our calling is, it cannot be everything. If a “calling” becomes everything, then we risk our fire burning out or our work becoming mechanical or insincere. Our “True Calling” is important because it informs these smaller “callings.” It gives them a foundation and will help sustain us when the fire does go out, which it inevitably will. My “True Calling” is to become my “truest self,” or in other words, to become the best version of myself that I can realize in this lifetime. To do that requires cultivating mindfulness and practicing being present to yourself, so that you can be present to others. I have always found that the hardest work of an artist is not the techniques of production or creating beautiful pictures but the work inside myself.
2) When did you first realize that this was your calling?
After graduating from Seminary back in Illinois and burning out on thinking too much, something within me was crying out to work with my hands. I managed to find a local carpenter whose work I admired and he took me on as an apprentice with really no experience at all. It turned out that he also installed tile and I slowly became his head tile installer. During two challenging tile installations working with him, I realized that I could do this work full-time and be quite happy.
Not long after that, I attended a “Green Building” conference in Chicago and met a woman by the name of Francine Gourguechon who was doing mosaic installations in architectural settings and I was blown away by her portfolio. It really opened my mind to what possibilities there were in tile. I began looking a little deeper and discovered the Chicago Mosaic School, the only school of its kind in the States dedicated to the origins of the medium. After my first workshop there, I realized I had found my people and my life began taking a new course.
3) People often become completely engrossed, losing track of time or outside concerns while performing tasks related to their calling. This might be referred to as being “in the zone” or “flow.” When do you experience this most often?
I am often quite engrossed in whatever project I am working on, although I think it was worse when I was purely a tile installer. There were far more details to manage in doing a bathroom or kitchen, keeping the subs on track, making sure the materials were there on time, communicating well with the client, managing the money, and doing the work day-to-day. It became hard for me be present to myself and my family at home and in our community.
Now that I’m working in the studio, I am still engrossed in what I do, but I feel like I can leave it there and return to it more seamlessly. Creating mosaics is very slow. One of my teachers would say that “mosaic pays homage to slowness!” I am naturally a contemplative type and I think mosaics have given me a tangible way to discern and express the thoughts and feelings and emotions that come when you are trying to be present to this life. It’s a kind of working meditation.
4) What is the greatest challenge or obstacle you’ve faced in pursuit of your life’s work?
There are a number of challenges that come with trying to live as an artist. I spend four days a week by myself working in my studio, so it can get lonesome sometimes. There is the challenge and stress of trying to make sure you will be able to pay the bills and sustain this thing you feel called to.
It can seem like nobody is really watching. I know a lot of artists say that you just have to do it for you and nobody else, and I think ultimately that is true or you won’t keep going. But for an artist, having an audience completes the act of making art. It doesn’t have to mean that I’m having ground breaking discussions about my work, but the occasional shout out from others helps me to know someone out there is getting what I’m doing.
As I alluded to before, the greatest challenge of being an artist is cultivating an interior life that gives you something to say. The thin divide between art and craft is in what is being communicated. Art usually is trying to say something while craft is trying to be something.
5) What has pursuing your Personal Legend taught you?
I have learned that art is sacramental much in the same way that churches teach – “a visible sign of an inward grace.” In the case of art, Beauty arrives as a grace. I’ve discovered that my hands, at times, may create a physical something that when encountered impresses on the viewer some grace or some presence, some beauty. For me, there is nothing greater than being able to participate in such an event. But I am also aware that, as an artist, I do not have the power within me to make Beauty arrive whenever I want. Sometimes it comes, sometimes it simply doesn’t. It is a mystery how all this works, but I think it is important to not think too highly of yourself and just keep giving yourself to each act of creation and see what may come.
6) What piece of advice can you offer to others seeking their true calling?
My best friend, who happens to be a therapist, recently shared a piece of wisdom that he had heard from one of his teachers in graduate school and I have been thinking recently how often it applies to “calling.” He said, “There are two kinds of people, fools and cowards.” It would be too simple to say that we are just one of these. At times we are fools and sometimes we are cowards. In my life, I have certainly been both, but I do think I’ve often lived the life of a fool, going for something when there wasn’t a clear path ahead or no guarantee that it would work. Following after a calling, in my experience, requires a leap. It may be a calculated leap, but it is a leap nonetheless.
For me, I spent a lot of time in my 20’s figuring out my identity. I think having a clear sense of self – who you are and where you came from – gives you the courage to leap when you need to leap and keeps you on course. Mindfulness, introspection, practicing the present moment, whatever you want to call this awareness is invaluable in finding your identity, but ancestry, genetics, and a sense of place is important too. Too many people are lost because they are distracted by all the bullshit around them – the demands of society, technology, the pace that we live life. That coupled with no sense of heritage or family origins is a medicine for disaster. I really liked reading Parker Palmer’s book “Let Your Life Speak.” He makes the case that if we are present to ourselves our lives will speak back to us the thing we should do. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, has also been influential in my life making me aware of how interconnected we are with each other’s plight and how our ancestry affects what we have to work with in our own journey toward calling.
My advice is to get to know yourself and allow yourself to be the fool you were called to be. In doing so, you will inspire countless of other fools to do the same.
Are you following your Personal Legend? Tell us about it in the comments below.
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